Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by BBC Scotland (PDB 6)


  BBC Scotland provides the country's most comprehensive and wide-ranging news and current affairs coverage across radio, television and online in both English and Gaelic.

  Our news operation forms a key part of the world's largest newsgathering organisation.

  Our flagship Reporting Scotland is currently Scotland's most popular early evening news programme, while BBC Radio Scotland is the country's most popular radio station, reaching around a million listeners a week.

  The annual budget for News and Current Affairs is over £20 million. 150 journalists work on everything from community news on BBC Radio Orkney to major investigations for BBC One Scotland's Frontline Scotland and UK-wide output.

  Since devolution, BBC news teams in Scotland and London have worked more closely together. Daily editorial conferences, and a permanent base in Glasgow for producers and reporters working for UK news programmes, have contributed to greater understanding of the differing needs of audiences in Scotland and across the UK.

  In the context of political coverage, BBC newsgathering has been strengthened, ensuring greater coherence in coverage of parliamentary activity in Edinburgh, London and Brussels. Audience research indicates that, in line with our long-term ambition, we have made progress in developing the audience in Scotland for intelligent, accessible coverage of news and current affairs across the range of BBC services.

  New programmes introduced since 1999 have established good audiences, while audiences for existing programmes have increased.

    —  In the 6-7pm news hour the BBC and ITV offerings go head to head. While the pattern of audiences varies, the BBC is currently emerging as the stronger. In the last three months (August-October 2001), the average audiences have been: BBC Six O'Clock News—460,000; Reporting Scotland—500,000; ITV Regional News Programmes—403,000; ITN at 6.30—435,000.

    —  The Reporting Scotland figure represents a 32 per cent share of those viewing (ie nearly a third of the total number of people watching television at that time).

    —  The combination of Newsnight and Newsnight Scotland regularly delivers audiences in excess of 100,000. On occasions, Newsnight Scotland—in its later, post 11pm slot—can increase the audience it inherits from the networked section of the programme despite the fact that the total viewing audience can decline by an average of around 22 per cent between 10.30 pm and 11.00 pm. In the period from 1st October to 15th November, Newsnight Scotland audiences ranged from 56,000 to 189,000 while the networked section of Newsnight delivered audiences ranging from 68,000 to 225,000 in Scotland. On 8 November, the resignation of Henry McLeish was reported in a 50-minute edition of Newsnight Scotland, replacing the network programme, which attracted about 140,000 viewers, above the average for the programme.

    —  the live Parliamentary coverage in Holyrood Live is appreciated by sizeable audiences, occasionally rising to over 100,000 in the middle of the afternoon, with audiences peaking for major occasions such as Budget Day at Westminster.

    —  Radio Scotland has a weekly reach of about a million listeners.

    —  BBC News Online Scotland attracts about 1.6 million page impressions every month, with tens of thousands of users accessing special background material on events such as the General Election campaign and the foot and mouth epidemic.

  BBC News and Current Affairs Broadcasting in Scotland since devolution


  1.1  It was immediately obvious after the referendum result in September 1997 that the UK was about to undergo a process of profound constitutional change which would impact significantly on news and current affairs broadcasting at the BBC. The creation of a new Parliament in Scotland with responsibility for Scottish domestic issues would require a substantial response by programme makers. Senior editorial and managerial figures from BBC News, Policy and Planning, BBC Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales began to meet regularly to determine the strategic response to devolution and to plan in detail how the new challenges should be met.

  1.2  It was recognised that, while it was important from the outset to establish a clear editorial framework, the response to devolution would require to be sensitive and flexible. A comprehensive set of recommendations went to the Board of Governors and the outcome was a set of announcements in December 1998: for Scotland, these included:

    —  new investment of £10 million per annum to provide coverage of the Scottish Parliament on our television, radio and online services;

    —  in television, a new and more integrated approach to the 6-7pm news hour to ensure that coverage would reflect developments across the UK;

    —  a Newsnight Scotland opt-out from the network programme on four weekdays at 11pm;

    —  more specialist correspondents to cover major areas of policy;

    —  a network news editor in Scotland to supervise coverage from Scotland for the rest of the BBC;

    —  new programme strands in radio and television to provide live and recorded coverage of the Scottish Parliament alongside the established coverage of Westminster;

    —  in Gaelic language broadcasting, a new weekly news programme on Radio nan Gaidheal;

    —  training for all BBC journalists throughout the UK in devolution awareness.

  1.3  The overall objective was to ensure that the Scottish audience would be able to receive a mix of services from network BBC programmes and from BBC Scotland which would reflect the realities of political decision-making and accountability in a devolved UK. That approach is implemented in the current broadcasting arrangements.


  2.1  Holyrood Live on Wednesdays and Thursdays is our main opportunity to provide substantial live coverage of plenary sessions in the Scottish Parliament. Both editions also carry coverage from Westminster, but each day has a different emphasis and balance to reflect the nature of the proceedings in the two Parliaments.

  2.2  The policy on Wednesdays is to broadcast Prime Minister's Questions in its entirety from Westminster, which reduces the airtime available for business in Edinburgh. Coverage from the House of Commons is supplemented by reports from correspondents and interviews with MPs. On Thursdays, First Minister's Questions is transmitted in its entirety and reports or interviews tend to focus more on issues and stories relating to the Scottish Parliament.

  2.3  Both the Wednesday and Thursday editions take a news-based approach, supplementing live coverage of proceedings with fast reaction to developments and informed commentary on the implications of what has been said in either chamber.

  2.4  Holyrood, the political magazine programme transmitted early on Sunday afternoons, has a brief to focus on the main Scottish political stories from Holyrood, Westminster or elsewhere. Its role is in part to look back at the main political events of the week just ended, while also finding time to anticipate the key issues of the week ahead.

  2.5  Scottish Questions at Westminster is broadcast live every month and the programme is repeated in the late evening.

  2.6  Reporting Scotland at 6.30pm has the largest audience of any news or current affairs programme in Scotland, achieving a 32 per cent share of the audience in the three months August-October 2001. Its agenda reflects its role within the early evening news hour, which is to complement the coverage of major UK and international events in the BBC Six O'Clock News with comprehensive reporting of issues and stories in Scotland. The programme has recently made presentational and other changes following research into audience preferences.

  2.7  Newsnight Scotland performs usually one of two roles: either to provide in-depth analysis of the main Scottish story of the day, or to present an original and agenda-setting piece of journalism not necessarily connected to that day's events. The programme begins shortly after 11.00pm and has a duration of about 20 minutes. In the most recent quarter (Q3), Newsnight Scotland and the UK network edition of Newsnight both drew an audience share of seven per cent.

  2.8  BBC Scotland will from time to time exercise its discretion not to opt out of network Newsnight, when events at home or abroad indicate that viewers would be better served by remaining with the full London edition of the programme. That editorial judgement has been made more frequently than is usually the case in the weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

  2.9  Conversely, on the day that Henry McLeish resigned as First Minister, BBC Scotland felt that this significant development warranted replacement of the network programme with a 50-minute edition of Newsnight Scotland. The resignation was also the main story in the network edition, but treated in a way that was appropriate for a UK-wide audience less familiar with the events leading up to Mr McLeish's decision.

  2.10  Frontline Scotland has built a considerable reputation as an investigative series uncovering important stories in a compelling fashion. There are currently two runs of 10 programmes annually, each benefiting from substantial resources and research. The revelatory nature of the series ensures that its journalism is widely reported elsewhere in the Scottish media. Average audiences for the current series are around 200,000 (14 per cent share but the range is wide) with 325,000 (28 per cent share) for the edition on 12 October dealing with the background to the conviction of William Beggs.

  2.11  All of these television news and current affairs programmes are subtitled to make them accessible to hearing-impaired viewers.


  3.1  Launched a year ago, Politics Tonight at 11.00pm on every weekday evening gives Radio Scotland listeners daily up-to-date coverage from all three Parliaments whose deliberations impact on Scottish lives. The programme also makes a regular feature of bringing together mixed panels of MPs, MEPs and MSPs to discuss specific issues where we feel a wide range of views is appropriate.

  3.2  Good Morning Scotland retains its important and familiar role as an agenda-setting programme. Its remit is to report international, UK and Scottish news and to anticipate the major issues likely to develop later in the day. It has a bigger audience in Scotland than any other speech programme on radio. GMS provides regular slots for news summaries, sports news, travel and weather information and financial headlines, all from a Scottish perspective. But for many listeners the defining characteristic of the programme is its daily interviews with key political and other figures at the centre of major issues and events.

  3.3  At lunchtimes from Monday to Friday, Lesley Riddoch presents a topical discussion programme in which listeners are able to put questions to politicians and other decision-makers.

  3.4  Newsdrive between 4.00pm and 6.00pm offers continuous news and information from Scotland and around the world. The programme makes a particular feature of including as much live material as possible, often from reporters using satellite phone technology in remote locations and studio interviews with the main players in the day's newsworthy events.

  3.5  Radio Scotland also provides live coverage of the monthly Scottish Questions from Westminster.

  3.6  At weekends, Newsweek Scotland gives Saturday morning listeners some detailed analysis of the major political and social issues of the week, whether domestic or international. Eye to Eye on Sundays picks up the main talking points from the Sunday newspapers, but is also known for its in-depth interviews with the people making the news. It is as often as not the case that the answers to Ruth Wishart's questions provide headlines and column inches for the Monday morning papers.


  4.1  In the year following the introduction of devolved government, BBC monitoring confirmed an increase in the numbers of stories from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland included in network television and radio news or current affairs programmes.

  4.2  Network news programmes have put more effort into highlighting policy differences between England and Scotland, making it clear when specific initiatives apply only in one country or the other and not across the UK as a whole. This heightened consciousness of national differences within the UK stems partly from an awareness and training programme introduced to make all BBC journalists aware of the impact of constitutional change.

  4.3  Another significant change is that BBC Scotland is now managerially responsible for the network television news team in Scotland, ensuring that UK programmes are fully aware of issues and stories which merit inclusion in services aimed at the whole of the country.


  5.1  This service has established itself as Scotland's foremost news website, winning the BT Scotland Website of the Year award in each of the last two years. Scottish political coverage forms a significant part of the content, with updated reports on events at both Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.

  5.2  In addition to text-based material, the BBC Scotland site offers live video and audio streaming of the full range of broadcast news and current affairs from our radio and television services. In-depth analysis is provided by News Online journalists as well as by BBC Scotland's political correspondents at the Edinburgh and Westminster Parliaments.

  5.3  A special Vote 2001 section was produced for the General Election campaign in Scotland. In addition to these Online services, BBC Scotland Ceefax remains the fastest source of breaking news coverage at any time and includes a special section dedicated to Scottish politics.


  6.1  In Gaelic language broadcasting, the BBC devolution funding allowed for the appointment of a parliamentary correspondent based in Edinburgh. In addition, a new weekly news review programme—Aithris na Seachdain—was introduced to augment the news service on Radio nan Gaidheal.

  6.2  The station was also able to introduce news bulletins on the hour on Saturdays and the very positive reception to these developments is confirmed by audience research. Radio nan Gaidheal's news bulletins are the most popular source of news for Gaelic speakers.

  6.3  In television, a new current affairs series Cunntas (Account) was introduced and transmits on a quarterly basis. The programme is recorded in locations across Scotland and has tackled such issues as Sunday ferry sailings, the decriminalisation of cannabis and tourism strategy.

  6.4  The European affairs series Eorpa adjusted its editorial content to reflect the impact of the new devolved governance of Scotland. The programme continues to report on Scottish issues with a European dimension—recent examples including organ donor consent, transportation in rural areas and the campaign to restore Scottish lamb exports to Europe following the foot and mouth epidemic.


  7.1  This range of services recognises the significance of Scottish devolution within the context of the United Kingdom as a whole. Experience over the last two years has been of reporting and analysing vigorous political debate on key areas of public policy, both at Westminster and Holyrood.

  7.2  All programmes, new and established, operate on the basis of editorial judgements made in Scotland on what the priorities are for our viewers and listeners. Apart from regularly-scheduled series, there is also extensive coverage of significant political occasions such as the Budget, the Autumn Statement, the Queen's Speech and the major party conferences.

26 November 2001

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